‘A Guest,’ I Answered, ‘Worthy to be Here’

 

‘Miserere mei, Deus’ is based on Psalm 51. It was composed by Gregorio Allegri, transcribed by a young Mozart and sung here by the incomparable Tenebrae Choir.

 

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

 For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgement.
 Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

 You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
 Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
 Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you.
 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
    O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

 O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
    if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
    rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
 then you will delight in right sacrifices,
    in burnt-offerings and whole burnt-offerings;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

                                                                ~ Psalm 51 NRSVA
   

 

The first step in becoming a follower of Christ is recognising my own depthless misery – my sin. I can’t turn back time. I can’t undo any of what I have done. I made the chasm between myself and God. Me. Why? Because I do stupid, hurtful things, selfish things. Christ alone was perfect, and He alone took the stain of sin upon Himself, so that I might not have to be separated from God. I deserve none of what He gave, yet because my Creator knows me, and loves me, He brings Himself to me. What love is this?

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:

Love said, “You shall be he.”

“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee.”

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, “Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.”

“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

“My dear, then I will serve.”

“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”

So I did sit and eat.

~ Love by George Herbert, circa 1633

 

What is Truth?

The noonday devil of the Christian life is the temptation to lose the inner self while preserving the shell of edifying behaviour. Suddenly I discover that I am ministering to AIDs victims to enhance my resumé. I find I renounced ice cream for Lent to lose five excess pounds. I drop hints about the absolute priority of meditation and contemplation to create the impression that I am a man of prayer. At some unremembered moment I have lost the connection between internal purity of heart and external works of piety. 

~ from The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning

Ouch. Yes, I have to constantly be on my guard against the deceit of pride and/or shame. In truth, I lose my temper – though thankfully not as frequently nowadays, I think bad thoughts, I say things I shouldn’t say, I do things or don’t do things that I know I should or shouldn’t do. I am very, very flawed. I am not going to list all my sins here for public consumption. They are all, I hope, acknowledged and brought before Jesus. Forgiveness is the most wonderful gift. It means we can start every day as fresh as a new born and for that I am eternally, wholly and completely thankful.

 

No Better

From the Shaun Groves album Third World Symphony

I sometimes wonder how I can call myself a follower of Christ when I still sin. But God, in His inexplicable majesty, instead of condemning me on my confession, seems to chuckle and say, “You’re not the only one. Just know that your sin, and your confession, keep you humble, and that’s the best place to be. It’s not the best way to do it, but – I love you. You’re forgiven. Seventy times seven and all that…”

I keep quiet, knowing that I probably used up my 490 quite some time ago.

Humility

Why are our churches so full of pride? Why do we find so many people within the body of Christ whose goal is to be ‘right’ or ‘the best’ or in power? Why are there so many who would exclude and look down on others for certain things, but they neither offer a hand in love nor cease their own wrongdoings? Why is pride so often overlooked? Why do we let this incredibly destructive sin course through the very veins of the Church? Why is this so rarely preached about? I can recall a single sermon on humility. That’s it. In decades.

Reading the following scripture this morning made me think of our church’s new pastor. One of his foremost qualities that I really appreciate is his humility. He’s ready and willing to be a ‘true disciple’. How very sad that this is so rare.

[Jesus said,] ‘The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers… I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Luke 18:9-14, NRSVA

Humility is not optional in the Kingdom.

 

Why Lent?

It’s funny, here in the UK, despite our mostly secular culture, the tradition of ‘giving things up for Lent’ continues. When so many other Christian traditions have fallen by the wayside, indeed, when knowledge of Christ’s story has been largely lost, I wonder why this ‘giving things up’ continues? Is it because we all know, somewhere in ourselves, that gain comes at a cost? Is it because we relate to the notion of sacrifice leading to better things? I don’t know.

I have already stopped eating dairy, due to lactose intolerance, and for the past month or so I have been avoiding refined sugar and white flour. I somewhat regret that I had already made this decision, as Lent would be the ideal time to give up refined sugar, but that would be somewhat missing the point of the exercise! As my two lovely girls ate breakfast this morning they were asking me what Lent is about, so I explained how traditionally people gave up eating sweet things and meat for the duration, and how they fasted until the evening. My girls had a little difficulty in grasping the notion of giving up something they like (don’t we all?). Fluff said she would give up meat because it was ‘meat free week’ at school this week. I reminded her that Lent is for 40 days. Maybe not, she said. Chip announced she would ‘give up sugar’ (because she knew I am avoiding it). I asked her whether she would mind not having any of Daddy’s birthday cake? She said she would, so maybe she wouldn’t do it after all… I reminded them that the purpose of ‘fasting’ or removing something from one’s life during Lent, is so that every time we experience the barb of temptation we recall the reason we need Christ. I also said it is not necessary for them to ‘give up’ anything, as it is primarily a spiritual exercise, and if they don’t have a real understanding of why they do something, it’s not necessary for them to do it. Instead, we will be sharing some Lent-focused bible reading during our Table Talk sessions.

As Ann Voskamp says in today’s blog post, Lent is a time for us to focus on our need for God, a time to reflect on our brokenness, our fallen nature, how even when we sincerely desire to do good, often it eludes us.

‘For I do not understand my own actions [I am baffled, bewildered]. I do not practice or accomplish what I wish, but I do the very thing that I loathe [which my moral instinct condemns].’

~Romans 7:15 (Amplified)

This experience sparks repentance, a sense of mourning, of loss.

bush-bean-row

‘Grief is what cultivates the soil for the seeds of joy.’

~ Ann Voskamp

We must not lose focus, however, in this acknowledgement of darkness. Knowledge of sin is what cultivates our soul to grow, like the seed first germinating in the cold earth. The death of self, the planting of the seed, is something that needs to happen regularly – Lent is the perfect time to focus on this, before the sorrow-turned-joy of Easter. We are prompted to turn, to seek something from without (because it does not – cannot – come from within). So we begin the search for light.

When we spend these weeks germinating in the bitter dark, first we begin to understand our deep need for Grace, then as we begin to grow ‘shoots’, we also begin to long for, to pine for the Light. Come Easter and we will comprehend the sorrow of the painful, humiliating abandonment and death, we will tread the path the disciples trod, in those bleak days between the death and the Rising… and then, miraculously, we will burst into the sunlight (Son Light?), truly reborn.

Today is the first step on that journey. Today we begin to reflect and to repent, remembering, as the Anglicans say, “that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.”

pushing-bush-bean-seeds-into-soil

Jesus answered them… ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit… Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.’ 

John 12:23-26 (NRSVA)

Images from ‘How to Plant Bush Green Beans’